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General Motors CEO: We have to earn our right to exist

General Motors (GM) CEO Mary Barra joined Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein in a conversation about the future of the automobile industry as part of the bank’s “Talks at GS” series.

GM, the biggest carmaker in the U.S., is also the largest female-led company in the world, ranking No. 10 on the Fortune 500 and employing 180,000 people. Barra, who started at GM in 1980 doing part-time work as a student, took over as CEO in January 2014 and was elected the company’s board chairman in 2016.

During the financial crisis, GM filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The company reemerged in 2010 in a historic IPO. A few years later, the GM experienced a massive recall due to defective ignition switches.

Blankfein asked Barra to reflect on some of those challenges. One of the key takeaways was the importance of “putting the customer at the center.”

“[Every] single interaction with a customer is an opportunity to win them or lose them,” Barra said, adding, “I very much talk to employees, ‘We don’t have the right to exist. We have to earn our right to be General Motors and to be able to have the privilege to build cars, trucks, crossovers, and other transportation services by doing a great job and earning customers.’ And so, really, that’s the transformation we’ve made.”

During her tenure, Barra has focused on “a future with zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion.” As part of that effort, the company is working on autonomous, electric, shared and connected vehicles.

“Let’s say five years from now — would it be completely natural to look over at a traffic light and see no one in the driver’s seat?” Blankfein asked.

“I believe, ‘yes,'” said Barra.

She also believes in an all-electric future.

Another topic that surfaced during the interview was U.S.-China trade relations. GM has held a presence in China for more two decades with joint-venture partners.

“Generally, over the last several years, General Motors has supported free trade agreements. We’re free traders by definition. And give us a level playing field, and not only with what the tariffs are, but there are a lot of non-tariff barriers…” Barra explained. “So, if you give us a level playing field, we want to compete to win based on merit. I think there’s [an] opportunity there to create a level playing field, which we don’t have today.”

While a reduction in tariffs would be a “good step,” Barra would like to see a level playing field.

“Again, I’d like to see it level, the same going back and forth, or just open up the markets and let us compete,” she said.

Barra is viewed as the most high-profile female CEO. She attributes much of her success to the values her late mother instilled in her.

“I had the mother who just created this sense, ‘You can do and be anything you want to be.’ She just believed in the American dream,” Barra said.

She’s also passionate about promoting STEM education.

“There’s not a single industry that’s not being impacted by technology. I’m not saying everyone should code, but you should understand it.”

General Motors Chairman and CEO Mary Barra REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
General Motors Chairman and CEO Mary Barra REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

Julia La Roche is a finance reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.